No longer an island? — I

A long time ago I wrote about the idea that the advance of technology had annihilated Britain's traditional maritime defences. This claim was famously -- supposedly -- made by Lord Northcliffe, founder and owner of the Daily Mail, after seeing Alberto Santos-Dumont fly in France in 1906: 'England is no longer an island'.1 It's so apposite that Alfred Gollin used it as the title of a book and an article about Edwardian aviation politics.2 As I showed, the same sentiment long predated the 20th century and the coming of flight: I found that it could be traced to as early as 1845, when Lord Palmerston, a former foreign secretary, supposed that

the Channel is no longer a barrier. Steam navigation has rendered that which was before impassable by a military force nothing more than a river passable by a steam bridge. France has steamers capable of transporting 30,000 men, and she has harbours, inacessible to any attack, in which these steamers may collect, and around which, on the land side, large bodies of men are constantly quartered. These harbours are directly opposite to our coast, and within a few hours' voyage of the different landing-places on the coast of England.3

Northcliffe's statement, which was made privately to his editor, is surprisingly hard to trace back to a primary source; I don't think I've ever seen one cited. 'England is no longer an island' doesn't appear in the Daily Mail itself, for example, before 1911, and even then it's not even attributed to him, or anyone other than 'When Blériot flew the Channel it was said'.4 The earliest I can find the phrase associated with Northcliffe in the major historical press archives is in 1940:

Our Channel is our Maginot Line, but since Bleriot flew across thirty years ago, Lord Northcliffe was right when he said: 'England is no longer an island.'5

And there's not much after that either.

Conversely, just as the idea that England was no longer an island was around long before the aeroplane, the phrase 'England is no longer an island', or something very similar, was actually in use long before Northcliffe. The earliest I've found is in 1846, when the Naval and Military Gazette warned that (emphasis added throughout this post):

We have repeatedly endeavoured to enforce on the minds of the people of this country that England is no longer an island in the Military sense; and that our frontier of Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire is liable to sudden invasion as the left bank of the Sutlej.6

The exact reasoning isn't immediately clear from the context, but it seems that it was a reference to the steamship threat, articulated by Palmerston the year before. The phrase was used again the following year, this time in the Kentish Gazette:

England is no longer an island which may trust, as of old, in her wooden walls for protection. Steam has paved the channel and made a causeway for an invading host; we are [now?] as one amongst the nations of the Continent, and, in self defence, we must become like them, an armed people, a nation of warriors as well as shopkeepers.7

The Channel tunnel attempt in the early 1880s led to another use of the phrase, in the Glasgow Herald, this time conditional rather than already being the case:

The Marquis of Hertford, presiding yesterday at the annual meeting of the South Warwickshire Association, referred to the proposed construction of a Channel tunnel, the effect of which, he said, would be to make England no longer an island, and would completely draw the teeth of the British lion.8

That was the last of this kind of anxious use of the phrase that I've been able to find for a quarter of a century. The next time it shows up in this sort of context is in 1908, at the start of the aerial age, and during Britain's first air panic, in the Referee's 'Mustard and Cress' column:

England is no longer an Island! Germany has won the command of the Air. Her Aerial Navy is far greater than ours. She will soon be able to drop 700,000 men into Dover in a single night. And then 'Nach London!' and three cheers for Anglo-German friendships -- and German Airships.9

Later that year, at the Aero Club's annual dinner, C. S. Rolls

declared that England was no longer an island, and that to maintain her old supremacy she must now not only have the command of the sea, but that of the air as well.10

Finally, there was a burst of England is no longer an islands after Blériot's flight across the Channel in July 1909. The Belfast News-Letter's London correspondent concluded that the flight proved the need for Britain to be at the forefront of aviation:

Apart from the fact that the achievement brings never-dying fame to M. Bleriot, and that it marks a great epoch in the history science [sic] of aviation, it probably means more for us than any country in the world. England, it is said, is no longer an island, and therein lies possibilities fraught with vital importance to us as a nation [...] In this connection it is recalled that the French have been pioneers in aeronautics as they were the pioneers in the conception of the ironclad and the submarine. It has been left to us to perfect French beginnings, and in scientific improvements for making the air like the water a traversable medium it is to be hoped we shall not lag behind.11

As if to prove the point, a gloating German newspaper apparently used the phrase:

'England is no longer an island,' remarks the 'Lokalanzeiger,' 'and all attempts of the English papers to minimise M. Bleriot's performance will not convince us to the contrary.'12

And the Referee's 'Mustard and Cress' column again, apparently now rather more sanguine about the matter than the year before:

It is deeply interesting to learn that England is no longer an island. But why has it ceased to be an island? Because an airship has carried a gallant Frenchman across the Channel? It would be as sensible to say that

We Ceased to Be Islanders

and were united to the Continent the first day that a sailing ship brought a foreigner to our shores. An island is land surrounded by water. If the airy contention is sound, then England ceased to be an island when Blanchard in 1785 crossed the Channel in his balloon.13

These are all the uses of 'England is no longer an island' in a defensive context that I could find up to and including 1909. It has the feel of a stock phrase, but not the frequency. It could be that Northcliffe read or recalled its use during the decades-old Channel tunnel controversy, but I doubt it. But there's another possible source. There was another set of uses of 'England is no longer an island' in the 1890s and early 1900s, surprisingly with much more positive associations -- as I will discuss in a following post.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Quoted in Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902–1909 (London: Heinemann, 1984), 193. []
  2. Ibid; Alfred Gollin, 'England is no longer an island: the phantom airship scare of 1909', Albion 13, no. 1 (1981): 43–57, doi:10.2307/4049113. []
  3. HC Deb 30 July 1845 vol 82 c1224. I originally found the first part of the quote in I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 20. []
  4. Daily Mail (London), 28 July 1911, 4. []
  5. Cornishman (Penzance), 4 July 1940, 4. []
  6. Naval and Military Gazette (London), 2 May 1846, 8. []
  7. Kentish Gazette (Canterbury), 5 January 1847, 1. []
  8. Glasgow Herald, 15 February 1883, 5. []
  9. Referee (London), 12 July 1908, 13. []
  10. Daily Telegraph (London), 11 December 1908, 13. []
  11. Belfast News-Letter, 26 July 1909, 7. []
  12. Western Times (Exeter), 30 July 1909, 9, quoting Morning Leader. []
  13. Referee (London), 1 August 1909, 11. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *